“Truth is bitter” is an all too familiar expression. As it seems to me, the expression borrows its validity from an understanding of “bitter” as the opposite of “sweet” – chocolaty, ice-creamy, sweet – as such, the antithesis of comfort and the comfortable.
Many English words and adages ought to be passed through the scrutiny of a renewed gaze if they are to retain in them anything of a life-giving, regenerative meaning.
“Truth is bitter” carries within it something of a malediction, an indictment, a condemnation even before Truth is born. Truth becomes judgemental even before it has a space to form itself into a revelation. Truth is bitter because there continues to be a hegemony of Truth, or more leniently, a truth that supersedes other truths. Truth is bitter because it fears being contested and doubted.
Truth is bitter because, for a long time, it has been conflated with “facts”. Yet in a world where facts are synthesised and manufactured – like wearables are churned out from sweatshops – and sold for profit to keep the hinges of the revolving door of capitalism oiled, should we not return to what, or better still, how Truth and honesty operate within various contexts of human relationships?
I am a photographer. What has become evident in my 17 years of the profession is that photography, as with most things in life, is about perspective and perception. At the intersection of these two axes is Vantage Point. There is more than one side to everything.
If, as claimed, we live in a world that becomes more plural by the day, it invariably means that we ought to ascribe value to each person’s point of view. Better put, acknowledge their agency (for one cannot “give” agency to the other. Every living creature is imbued with an agency by the mere virtue of life pulsating through him/her/it). If there is “danger in a single story”, as Chimamanda Adichie cautions, how then does Truth as facts operate in such a context? Moreover, what do we make of “alternative facts” incubated in the loophole opened up by this assertion?
Throughout history, facts have been manipulated; twisted into their weaponised form, propaganda, to deploy power and subjugate human subjectivity. Yet, in present-day schools, children are still made to believe that the abridged version of the past is indeed history. In other words, history, as entered through the doors of formal education, is, more often than not, where we are divested of intimate knowledge of human stories rather than acquire it. How then can we make a humanised world when even Truth has and continues to be co-opted? Should we abandon our enquiry into history on that account?
To answer this question, I am reminded of another saying by James Baldwin: History is present. What this means is that we are called to consider a prominent place for our subjectivity. Past is never absent; it only reconditions itself in the present. To understand history, we have to unravel it. In nowhere else can we find the disposition to do so than in the intricate understanding of how our subjectivity operates in the present’s continuousness.
To unravel history is to attempt to enter the past from inlets aberrational to what we have been told and taught. Yet can we see new inlets into history when, over centuries, it has been sealed off by self-appointed chroniclers of events who continue to manipulate and arrange history into a linear and narrow alley within which the unfathomable expanse of human stories are stifled and negated?
Negated! Yes, negated but not destroyed. It’s all there – in the sidewalks and graveyards across space and time because history is always present.
To access this present yet elusive history is to transpose our mindset with regards to Truth. Truth begins with self-honesty. That which we tell or refuse to tell ourselves when we dare to look inwards. I speak of the “inwards” that comprise roads and tributaries that connect us, like a complex nervous system, to an innate knowledge strewn together by profoundly remarkable experiences and encounters. It is one’s compass of humanity. It tethers us, yet it sets us free with the assurance that we are connected to “here and elsewhere”.
There is nothing of the above that suggests that looking inwards is easy. It requires, for the most part, courage. Be it as it may, it is the only road to the apex of one’s humanity.
How does one begin this journey? The Igbos of West Africa (where I come from) have a saying: one who always asks questions will never lose the way. Note, it did not say “will get to a certain destination”, for this inward journey is little about a destination than it is about the process within the journey. It is a never-ending flow where we find momentary intersections with other humans, creatures and animated entities journeying along.
Thus to ask questions has become, as I like to say, the most “alive” activity taking place within me. To ask questions is also to question one’s assumptions and positionality. To allow space for doubt not necessarily synonymous with indecisiveness. To ask questions is to create a space for the expansion of one’s sphere of knowledge. It is to acknowledge that Truth takes on many forms according to the countless subjective perspectives and perceptions by which our world is held together like intricately woven threads. That to get to Truth, we may have to journey through lies, deceptions, misconceptions.
Only when we have reconciled with our innate Truth can we have anything to offer to our fellow humans. At this point, the well-meaning person will not consider Truth as bitter but as a process constantly taking place within. What one owes the other then is clarity through effective communication. This innate Truth does not beg for justification or validation from outside itself. It can only offer clarity – not explanation – when asked.